WASHINGTON – A short-handed and deeply divided Supreme Court deadlocked Thursday on President Barack Obama’s immigration plan to help millions living in the U.S. illegally, effectively killing the plan for the rest of his presidency and raising the stakes even further for the November elections.
The hotly debated direction of America’s national immigration policy as well as the balance of power on the high court now will be determined in large part by the presidential and congressional elections. Immigration and the court vacancy created by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death in February already were featuring prominently in the campaign.
Scalia’s vote likely would have meant an outright ruling against Obama’s immigration expansion rather than the 4-4 tie, a much more significant defeat for the president and immigrant advocates.
Democrat Hillary Clinton declared that as president she would work to restore the programs and go further. Republican Donald Trump said he would make sure Obama’s “unconstitutional actions” never came back.
The tie is not likely to lead to an increase in deportations since the president retains ample discretion to decide whom to deport. But the ruling stymies his effort to bring people “out from the shadows” by giving them the right to work legally in the U.S.
One of the Obama programs would have protected the parents of children who are in the country legally. The other was an expansion of a program that benefits people who were brought to the U.S. as children. Obama decided to move forward on his own after Republicans won control of the Senate in 2014 and the chances for an immigration overhaul, already remote, were further damaged.
Obama said Thursday’s impasse “takes us further from the country we aspire to be.”
The candidates vying to replace him split as plainly as the justices.
Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, said if she is elected she will defend the Obama programs “and do everything possible under the law to go further to protect families.”
Republican Trump said the court outcome “blocked one of the most unconstitutional actions ever undertaken by a president” and the split decision “makes clear what’s at stake in November.”
And the people directly affected?
Mexican immigrant Cristina Molina of New York City, said she was frustrated and upset. “I feel like I’m in limbo,” Molina, 48, said through an interpreter. She has lived in the United States for 23 years and said she would have been eligible for one of the programs Obama announced in 2014.
A Supreme Court tie sets no national precedent but leaves in place a ruling by a lower court.
A full nine-justice court agreed to hear the case in January, but by the time of the arguments in late April, Scalia had died. That left eight justices to decide the case, and the court presumably split along liberal-conservative lines, although no breakdown was announced.
The federal appeals court in New Orleans had said the Obama administration lacked the authority to shield up to 4 million immigrants from deportation and make them eligible for work permits without approval from Congress. That ruling now remains in place.
The Republican-led Senate has refused to hold a vote on Obama’s nominee, Judge Merrick Garland. He would not have participated in the cases argued this term, but the court might have avoided 4-4 ties and ordered cases to be argued anew if he had been confirmed.
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